The Houston Cougars gave former head coach Kevin Sumlin a rude welcome back, pouncing on his Arizona Wildcats early for a 45-18 win Saturday at TDECU Stadium.
Led by quarterback D’Eriq King’s six total touchdowns and 277 combined yards (246 yards, four TDs passing; 31 yards, two TDs rushing), the game was not even as close as the final score indicated, as the Cougars built a 38-0 lead less than 3 minutes into the third quarter and mainly flipped into cruise control after that.
“That guy is so competitive,” Houston head coach Major Applewhite said of King. “He’s such a great leader. He’s tough. He’s been through adversity. He’s been told he’s too short his whole life — I feel that. So, I’m pulling for him.”
Houston burst out the gates with an up-tempo attack, which proved to be effective on a 10-play, 81-yard scoring march down field on the opening drive of the game.
On what initially appeared to be a broken bubble screen pass play, receiver Marquez Stevenson shed a tackler and raced 24 yards to the end zone to give the Cougars a 7-0 lead just 3:47 into the game.
“We came out there, and we started fast — a lot of guys making plays,” King said. “The offensive line did great all game. I think we rushed for close to 300 yards, so that was a big part of it, and I just went out there and did my job.”
After a Garrett Davis interception (Davis went on to have two picks on the day) on Arizona’s first possession, a 39-yard run by Patrick Carr put Houston on the 1-yard line, where three plays later, King punched it in on a QB sneak to put the Cougars up 14-0 at the 8:29 mark of the first quarter.
Houston converted a fourth-and-1 play in their own territory before King stayed in the pocket just long enough to find a wide-open Romello Booker for a 52-yard TD reception that put the Cougars ahead 21-0 with 4:43 to go in the first quarter.
“I just knew I had to score, man — that was the only thing going through my mind, just get in the end zone,” Booker said. “The high tempo, it gets defenses tired, and it’s always hot in Houston with this humidity we have out here, so that’s definitely to our advantage.”
Dalton Witherspoon split the uprights on a 35-yard field goal at the 12:38 mark of the second quarter to give Houston a 24-0 lead.
The Cougars capped a nine-play, 75-yard drive with a 13-yard TD pass from King to Bryson Smith for a 31-0 lead with 3:44 remaining in the first half. At 18-yard TD pass from King to Keith Corbin on Houston’s first drive of the second half pushed the lead to 38-0.
With mainly reserve defenders in the game for the Cougars, Arizona finally got on the scoreboard, starting with a 49-yard field goal from Lucas Havrisik with 3:16 left in the third quarter.
Darrius Smith punched in a 1-yard TD run with 11 seconds to go in the third quarter, and Khalil Tate found pay dirt on a 2-yard QB keeper at the 11:05 mark of the fourth quarter. A missed extra point kick left the Wildcats down, 38-16.
Tate, a dark-horse Heisman candidate, used Houston’s lax defense in the second half to pad his stats, throwing for 194 of his 341 total passing yards after the game was already out of hand.
Midway through the final period, Colin Schooler dropped Mulbah Car for a 1-yard loss in the end zone for a safety. Houston tacked on one final score with 1:48 remaining in the game on a 4-yard King run on a drive that started on the Cougars’ 5-yard line and that was sparked by a 60-yard Stevenson run on a jet sweep.
The Cougars will be back in action 3:15 p.m. next Saturday at Texas Tech.